Author : J.R. Blackwell, Staff Writer

The suns rotate around each other, red over yellow, yellow over red, and Sharra’s skin sheds again. Yet again, she had refused to mate. He hasn’t had a single sexual encounter during the last sun rotation and her body knows. It thinks it has failed her. So she molts her body trying another shape to attract mates. The process is painful. She stays at home for days, picking at her skin, nursing new limbs out of their hard shells. When it’s over, her sweat glands open and her scent hangs heavy in the hot air. Males sniff in the streets, noses veiled, but twitching as she walks by. She smells like copulation, like love.

“What is it that you want?” asked her sister, who had mated since her first molt, maintaining the same shape since her adolescence.

“Not this.” Sharra tells her, running her new limbs over her body.

She bathes to wash the scent off, but by the first sunrise it’s always back, wafting from her scales. Males flair their leathery skin wings at her – vestigial, but colorful reds and yellows, sometimes a dramatic neon blue. But Sharra isn’t interested. In the cafeteria, males give her colorful spun latticework, made from their vibrating tongues. Some of them are dull and gooey, but others are stiff and beautiful, colorful, works of art. She keeps all of them until they crumble. They are all sincere, if unwanted.

“Mate now,” says her sister, “and you will keep that scent. Don’t you want to have your pick of mates?” Her sister believes this is important, as important as work, as breath, as her own eggs.

“No.” says Sharra. “It’s not right.”

“But changing every sun rotation is a hassle! If you don’t like any of your mating options right now, you can always have a stimulator,” her sister says, “it will do the trick. Then you can keep that amazing scent!”

“I want to change,” says Sharra, her new skin tender under her scales. “This is what I want.”

This scent attracts too much attention. The scales are too rigid. Already Sharra knows she is ready for a change. Maybe next time, her shape will be right.

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Relative Weather

Author : S. Craig Renfroe, Jr.

The hail slammed the ground like the ground was some poor kid who preferred writing out math problems to kicking a red rubber ball. That ball pitted like the kid’s face. The ground was pretty pitted by the hail. I never had that problem. I played baseball and did the math problems in the dugout. The problem was this was unexpected. This hail. I’d been trying to control the weather again.

Luckily I had brought my portable blast shield and now we were safe. Though how long would it take for safe to go to trapped? I smiled reassuringly at my daughter Marie, who paid no attention, wrapped in her phone, probably tweeting, her black polished fingernails a blur.

“Don’t you dare post anything about this,” I told her.

“Really? So I should erase my status: Marie’s dad the mad scientist makes her spend the weekend out in a field with a fucked up hail storm of his own making.”

“Does your mother let you curse?” I asked genuinely interested. But she only gave me that sigh she’d contracted since turning fourteen.

The hail storm increased in intensity, which I feared was the exact opposite of what should have happened when I recalibrated my machine when the first few chunks fell. The corn all around was being beaten down. We’d come out to the outskirts of Sumerville because on the one hand it had the advantage of being virtually deserted and on the other hand in the grip of a devastating drought that appealed to my altruistic desires.

Marie quit tapping for a second to watch the hail destroy my machine. It collapsed, a dinted and dinged warrior, what I liked to think of as the fighter who met his end crushed by Goliath right before David was up. My next one will be the David machine and slay this idiotic ecosystem slave master.

“Maybe it’s God’s wraith,” Marie said.

“Honey, you know there’s no god.”

“Right. Spaghetti monster.” She gave me a look and twirled a sprig of blonde hair in a way that can only mean she plans on sleeping with the first evangelical Christian she can, just to spite me.

My feeling of safety erodes as the hail piles up. The cozy paternal closeness to Marie had turned into claustrophobia and I cowardly wondered if I could bring myself to push her out of the pup-tent-sized shelter.

“Should I call for help?” she asked.

“Nope, I got this.” I had nothing.

“You leveled Sumerville,” she reported. “It’s on the news feed all over. ‘Hail Storm Cripples Small Town,’ ‘Windows smashed, roofs collapse under weight, seven killed.’ It’s like you’re Godzilla. Only a geek.”

“This is probably unrelated,” I said. “My experiment was more about research.”

“You told me to ‘watch this’ and made a speech about ending droughts and hunger and poverty.”

“Research.” I watch the clouds darken and the hail add up.

“This is why Mom left you.”

“Your mom cheated on me.”

“What? You never told me that.”

“I didn’t want you to think badly about her, but now that you think badly about me because I’ve doomed us I don’t care so much.”

“Sorry. But according to the Doppler your little mistake is breaking up.”

And a few silent minutes later, the sky did lighten. Surely, when this mess melted, it would be a lot of water. That would help. His daughter told him she forgave him—for what exactly he wasn’t sure—and that the next weekend she expected to go to a concert of her choosing.

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Author : Christopher Booth

The war was over…sorta…The big one was over. It led to the Texan independence wars. Eventually five states all wanting to be called Texas.

He is dressed in blue denim and gray to match the day. A cold dull light comes inside. Vern never liked drinking in the morning. He wished he did.

Not much need for software engineers in this brave new frontier. His wife left, daughter whoring, and son killed in the war. No work, very little money.

His career started in an aerospace/defense firm programming technology that the world would not see commercially for decades. When he disobeyed the CIA’s orders (long explanation for another time) he was off to find another job. That is when the Superconducting Super Collider called. Really just a big hole in the North Texas plain. No atom was ever intended to be smashed there. It did allow Congress or the CIA or somebody to funnel billions of dollars to a project the public never really questioned. It was closed five years later.

Vern wrote neural networks. His software was the brain. The other engineers and biologist etc. would build the bodies. A soldier. Let the enemies kill the machines. We can always make more. Vern never saw his software used. Vern eventually went to work for a bank. Stayed there twenty-five years.

Then came the war. America had lost it’s will to fight after Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran and Iraq again. The states broke up. Each state became its own little republic. Texas tried to stay together, but in the tumultuous times the state split into five separate states. The south (proclaiming itself Texicana) was definitely the strongest of the states. Back by a still functioning Mexican government and a population that was once considered minority now had the regional power. Vern hated Texicans – That is where his son was killed and his daughter was shacking-up with one of the bastards. Vern wasn’t sure, but he thought the Texicans would kill anyone with skin whiter than theirs.

The knock on the door startled him…He was dozing. Still before noon. Too early to start drinking. Vern cracked the door. A young man who appeared to be tired and scared – jittery. Dressed in a Sabine (the current name of the East Texas state) army captain’s uniform.

“Mr. Adams, you got to let me in. Mr. Adams, THEY want to kill me!”

“Who the hell are you? No I am not letting you in”. Vern’s voice startled himself…when was the last time he spoke?

“And how do you know my name?” The phlegm caught in Vern’s throat. Apparently he had not spoken in quite a while.

“You are Vern Adams, correct?” The young man’s words were urgent, the tone wasn’t.

“Whatever. And who are you? And if they want to kill you don’t do it in my hall”.

“Mr. Adams, sir, I am your child. You are my father…”

Vern tried to remember the last time he had sex. Some whore with a birthmark right below the top of her pubic hair. Vern initially thought she had some damn disease. He eventually got it up, but he swore off of sex ever since.

“Boy, my son is dead. Killed somewhere near Padre. This Ain’t funny…”

“Mr. Adams, the SSC. You wrote me into existence at the SSC. I know who you are. You have to help me Mr. Adams. I am part of you. Please Mr. Adams! THEY want to KILL me!”

Vern pulled the door to and leaned back against it.

“Damn!” Vern knew he was gonna have to think for a minute.

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Empty Nest

Author : Richard “Zig” Zagorski

Harmonia, in low orbit, drifted over the red planet just as she had done for over a year now. Her electronic ears constantly straining to hear the voices of her children down below. It had been too long since she had heard from some of them.

“No mother should outlive her children,” she thought to herself.

Three years ago, Harmonia left Earth atop a blazing rocket. For two years, she traveled through space toward Mars. The entire time protecting her precious cargo: Harmonia’s nine daughters. Nine rovers meant to land on the red planet, each named for one of the Muses. She kept all of them safe from the vacuum of space – from cosmic rays and the extremes of temperature. The probes slept peacefully the entire voyage, only beginning to awaken after Harmonia settled into her orbit.

Once in orbit, Harmonia checked each probe to make sure they were ready; then she seeded the red planet with her precious children.

From the start, it was emotional. Letting her children leave her embrace … the sadness was intense. It intensified further when no signal ever came from Melpomene. Her keepers back on Earth were of the opinion that the poor rover’s chutes never opened.

The rest of her children made their landings successfully and shortly were sending back data. Harmonia knew great pride in the work her children would do over the following months. However, with that pride there came a growing sadness as, one by one, her children went silent.

A few months after landing, Clio had a problem with her solar array and slowly went quieter and quieter as the strength of her signal diminished.

Next was Polyhymnia. She’d gotten too close to the edge of a crater and went over as the precipice crumbled beneath her treads. After tumbling down no word was ever heard from her again.

Terpsichore, being untrue to her namesake, the muse of dance, managed to get stuck while moving between two rocks. The rocks blocked any direct sunlight from falling upon her solar panels. She also slowly went silent.

Erato got trapped in a sandpit and was gradually buried, never to be heard from again.

Poor, dear Calliope managed to snag one tread and for the past few months had gone in circles crying for help. Help that Harmonia couldn’t provide her with.

Euterpe, since landing, had been silent. She would simply advance three meters forward, then retrace her steps, then begin again. The same three meters … over and over and over endlessly. No acknowledgment of receiving commands. Just back and forth, month after month.

Thalia was a great success scientifically, finding further evidence of water on the red planet. However, not very long after, she was caught in a sandstorm, which must have covered her solar array. Since then, no word or even carrier signal were heard from her.

Urania, the muse of astronomy, fittingly was the last daughter to still function at peak level. Making her lonely sojourn across the red planet at the commands relayed to her from Earth by Harmonia. Sending back valuable data. For now she lived, but Harmonia knew what was to come. In time, Urania would also die and Harmonia would be left behind. A lonely mother who had watched as her children died one by one.

“No mother should outlive her children,” Harmonia thought to herself …

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Guardian Angel

Author : Daniel Titus

Allan stood alone on the observation deck. He had been there for hours, looking down at the planet below. It was a breathtaking view, the clouds, the sea, the land, but the physical features were ultimately unimportant. What was important were all the people. Millions of them, each with a life of their own that was about to change forever. It was the stuff headaches were made of.

“They’ll be here soon.”

It was finally out in the open. Chuck had a tendency to be blunt like that, but in this case it seemed appropriate. He needed it too. It was the kind of thing you needed someone else to see, and none of the others had the knack for that kind of foresight.

“The real question is how bad it’s going to be,” Allan said. He shook his head. “We thought The Crisis was the last we’d see of this stuff, but now… war. I never thought I’d live to see it.”

“You’re of course familiar with Alexander Hawthorne?” Chuck asked.

“Yeah,” Allan said. “Probably the most underrated figure in all of history.”

“Then you know about his vision,” Chuck said. “And you know about history. Hawthorne saw the pattern of destruction woven throughout the ages, The Crisis was only part of that. He thought he had the chance to stop it, but the belief that civilization can break the cycle is ultimately flawed. Spreading out into space just added more variables to the equation, it didn’t solve it, and there will always be unknown elements interacting in ways that even an old A.I. can’t predict.”

“So are you saying he was wrong?”

“Not at all. The fact that he managed to bring about an age of peace and prosperity that lasted over 500 years speaks to that. His greatest success however is that the human race will never go extinct, at least not in any reasonable time frame. That is the main difference. No matter how many people die, civilization will continue unabated, maybe not as we currently know it, but even if all ties are broken between the worlds each will continue independently. That’s what makes Alexander a true visionary though, isn’t it? The man who saved humanity from itself.”

Allan’s morose expression softened a little. “You know Chuck, you seem to be making an awful lot of assumptions about the safety of the human race. How can you possibly have any idea what kind of troubles we’re going to have to face?”

“I’m not saying I have an idea,” Chuck said, sounding a little annoyed. “What I DO know is, that whatever problems there are to be had I will do my best to protect as many people as possible.”

Allan laughed. “Does that make you our guardian angel?” he asked.

The brow of Chuck’s avatar furrowed. “I think it’s obvious which one of us is the guardian here, and you know I don’t speak lightly.”

Allan was now fully smiling. “ I had no idea they programmed you with a romanticism subroutine.” He laughed again.

Chuck’s avatar smiled back at him.“Does anyone know what they programmed me with at this point?”

It was a good question, but at that moment in time, it fell pretty far from the top of the list of important things in Allan’s mind. He was done with his little pity party. The time for reflection had passed, at least for now. Now was the time for action.

They’ll be here soon…

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